The Great Catholic Cracker Caper

WASHINGTON - APRIL 17:  A priest holds a Holy Communion wafer as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass at Nationals Park April 17, 2008 in Washington, DC. Today is Pope Benedict XVI\'s third day of his visit to the United States.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)Sometimes, Freud told us, a cigar is just a cigar.  Sometimes, though, it’s a cracker.

Apparently, there’s a huge wave (that’s media speak for at least two similar incidents) of people using Roman Catholic communion wafers for something other than their intended spiritual purpose.  Earlier this month, it a University of Central Florida student:

Webster Cook says that, instead of eating a Eucharist wafer as he was expected to do during the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he smuggled the blessed piece of bread out of mass.  Once blessed, the piece of bread  is viewed by Catholics as the true Body of Christ.

[…]

Webster gave the wafer back, but the Catholic League, a national watchdog organization for Catholic rights claims that is not enough.   “We don’t know 100% what Mr. Cooks motivation was,” said Susan Fani a spokesperson with the local Catholic League.  “However, if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.”

The firestorm set off PZ Meyers who, in a post titled “IT’S A FRACKIN’ CRACKER!” raged,

Holding a cracker hostage is now a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shephard was a hate crime. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was a hate crime. This is a goddamned cracker. Can you possibly diminish the abuse of real human beings any further?

So, naturally, our intrepid biologist had a plan:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.

Shockingly, this spawned more outrage.   For example,  crunchy conservative Rod Dreher responded with a post titled “P.Z. Myers, Coward” and filed it under “anti-Christian bigotry.”

If P.Z. Myers had any guts, he would put out a call for someone to send him a Koran so he could blow his nose and wrap fish in it. After all, it’s nothing but frackin’ ink on paper, right? So what’s stopping you, Big Man? It’s easy to s— on what Catholics regard as sacred. But just try doing the same thing to what Muslims regard as sacred. Let’s see what you’re made of.

Dreher quickly notes that he’s merely being ironic and wants to see no harm come to any Koran.

Responding to these various criticisms, Myers retorts, “Your personal sense of the sacred in a piece of bread dough is absurd to me and imposes on me no sense of obligation.”

Doug Mataconis begs to differ: “Call it crazy if you want. Call it without scriptural foundation even. It’s what they believe, which makes their reaction somewhat understandable in my mind.”  Further, Myers “did this knowing what the Eucharist means to Catholics with the obvious intention of offending them by doing so. While he may not have committed a crime, he did act like a thoughtless jerk whose actions really aren’t worthy of being defended.”

Megan McArdle is “flummoxed” by those who defend Myers under the “JUST A CRACKER” defense.

Would it be okay if I spraypainted obscenities on your mother’s grave because it’s just a piece of highly compressed igneous rock with some lines chiseled into it? How about if I photoshop your a photo of your now-grown child onto a piece of child porn, because after all, no one’s actually hurt by this–it’s just a piece of paper.

If you reduce symbols to their base physical constituents, then of course it sounds silly to get all excited about them. Nonetheless, you’d probably be pretty damn upset if someone dug up a relative’s grave and desecrated the corpse on the grounds that it’s just some rotting meat.

People do not live without symbols. The fact that you do not share someone else’s symbols does not give you the right to descrate them. Desecrating other people’s symbols is the act of a bully and a boor.

Previously, she called the stunt “really, really juvenile” and  observed, “Desecrating a communion wafer because Bill Donohue is an officious jerk is like paining swastikas on the tombstones of a Jewish cemetery because Abe Foxman said something that pissed you off.”

I fully agree with Megan and Doug that Myers’ behavior here was boorish.  Rather clearly, his aims were to offend the religious sensibilities of millions of people while looking all clever to his atheist friends.  Those aren’t admirable aims.  Further, someone who’s a guest at a place of worship ought to show some respect for his hosts.  Doing otherwise is just bad manners.

At the same time, though, Myers is right:  He’s under no obligation to pay obeisance to what he believes to be the silly rituals and beliefs of others.  During the whole Danish Muslim cartoons thing, certainly, I didn’t think that Western cartoonists were wrong to draw cartoons of Mohammed, regardless of whether others — even a billion others — believed that doing so was blasphemy. Ditto when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and earned fatwah from the Ayatollah Khomeini.  People have a right to express themselves and others have a right to be offended by that expression; violence, however, is not an acceptable response.

A communion wafer isn’t a headstone.  The latter is, after all, private property.  Webster Cook and, presumably, those called to action by Myers were given the wafers freely by people not expecting to have them returned in usable condition.   Taking one under such conditions isn’t a crime, let alone a “hate crime.”

Perhaps a better example for non-religious folks is the burning of the American flag in protest, an act that so enrages millions that laws have been passed to prohibit it and, once the Supreme Court ruled it to be protected speech, has even sparked calls for amending the Constitution to ban it.  While it’s perfectly legal to do burn the flag — and it’s a very powerful way of making a point — it’s also something that will likely earn you widespread scorn.

If people want to think Myers and Cook are horrible people, they’re free to do so.  That’s the cost of taking controversial stands.  Death threats and similar responses, however, are not.

Photo:  Daylife/Getty Images

FILED UNDER: General, Religion, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    No. It’s beyond boorish. From my point of view it’s actually hateful and, apparently, intentionally hateful.

    But it’s not a crime. We need to stop giving in to the temptation to criminalize actions we don’t like, particularly things we don’t like in the domain of religion.

    The Enlightenment was a good thing and we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to return to the days before it.

    I’d go a little farther: we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to legalize all interactions, i.e. pulling everything into the domain of the law. But that’s a different subject.

  2. Bithead says:

    Heh.
    Assuming Cook and Meyers are wrong about what he assumes this wafer to be, death threats should be the least of their concerns. What comes AFTER, however….

    That snark aside, if Flushing a Koran is a hate crime, then this other is, as well.

  3. M1EK says:

    I’d like to see a communion wafer and a Koran desecrated at the same damn time. And a copy of the Torah, and whatever else we could throw in there for evangelical Protestants.

    Maybe then people would get it: they’re just things, people. And if not, the spectacle of members of all those religions getting pissed off at the same time would be worth it, too.

  4. The skepTick says:

    As I was reading your post, I came to the same conclusion – the best analogy is not graffiti or personal photographs, rather it’s the burning of the American flag. While PZ will engender no love for him from Catholics, he is protected in his right to do what he wishes with a bit of unleavened bread. Same with the Koran. It’s a controversy that should spark discussion, not violence. It cuts to the essence of who we are – can we rise above this fracas as civil human beings or do we show that religion does indeed lead to violence?

  5. PD Shaw says:

    Cook, I take it, is Catholic, and as such is governed by its rules to the extent he wishes to remain a member. Excommunication, etc.

  6. Anderson says:

    Priests used to deposit the wafer directly in the communicant’s mouth, avoiding such situations for the most part — I guess Myers could jump up & spit the wafer out, but that would be a bit conspicuous.

    Myers is going a bit far into crank territory, which is a shame — it does so much damage to his credibility on other subjects, rightly or no.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    What about simple respect for others? If some childish, jackass, attention whore is going to make a bid deal out of this we would all be better off ignoring him. These questions of religious symbolism are most often debated amongst junior high age kids not adults. By the time we are functioning in society we understand others feelings and beliefs.

    It is just a cracker, and paper, and whatever but it does no one any good to make such a display. Aren’t there better things to discuss? Aren’t there bigger problems in the world? Aren’t there any grownups out there?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    I’d like to see a communion wafer and a Koran desecrated at the same damn time. And a copy of the Torah, and whatever else we could throw in there for evangelical Protestants.

    Hmm. I’d rather see all of them treated with respect. Most of what people live by are symbols, M1EK. That has always been true and is likely always to be true.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    It’s not just the symbolism at issue here. Cook received the host on the condition that he consume it. It was a conditional gift. Having not performed the condition, the Church had the right to recover it. In my view, there are legal issues here, though primarily civil.

  10. Grewgills says:

    It has been interesting seeing the same people comment on the Danish cartoon and this incident. Far too many who cheered the former are outraged by this and some few did the reverse.

    That said it was rude and a low point for PZ, whose blog I generally enjoy.

  11. Michael says:

    I’d like to see a communion wafer and a Koran desecrated at the same damn time. And a copy of the Torah, and whatever else we could throw in there for evangelical Protestants.

    Let’s also desecrate some gay-pride banners and a Martin Luther King Jr. effigy. What better way to show the world how enlightened you are than by offending everybody you possibly can.

    They’re not just “things”, they’re a physical representation of people’s faith, hopes, dreams and happiness. When you crap all over those physical things, you’re crapping on their metaphysical counter parts too.

    Crackers do matter.

  12. ThirtyFiveUp says:

    Thanks for this essay. Just as lead cannot be changed to gold by saying magic words and waving of hands, so, a cracker cannot be changed into Jesus by saying magic words and waving of hands.

    PZ will not do anything gross; and he will not attempt to get any RC crackers himself. He probably will give them to a RC priest. Unfortunately, he has had e-mail that claims they are sending him poisoned crackers, so everything will have to be burned. Putting them into the sacrarium could poison the earth.

  13. brainy435 says:

    “Cook received the host on the condition that he consume it. It was a conditional gift. Having not performed the condition, the Church had the right to recover it. In my view, there are legal issues here, though primarily civil.”

    This can be fixed very easily. Print a Terms of Use on the back of each wafer. THEN it’s criminal.

  14. Markus says:

    All I know is that the world would be a better place without superstition. That people can get so upset over a mere cracker is ridiculous.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    Print a Terms of Use on the back of each wafer. THEN it’s criminal.

    I didn’t realize that there was any possibility of uncertainty as to what one should do with the wafer, at least if you’re Catholic.

    It is quite possible that its a criminal fraud to obtain a conditional gift under false pretenses with the intent to not peform the condition.

  16. Johnny Doe says:

    Firstly, big-ups for being one of the few who find Myer’s actions genuinely offensive to actually take to task the offensive act of tossing about death threats.

    The Donahue objection is simple: because it is a piece of bread that millions find sacred PZ Myers should respect it. The Myers objection is simple: why respect a piece of bread simply because a significant segment of the population finds it sacred.

    Replace the words “piece of bread” with “reproduction of the prophet” or “magic underwear” or “beef” (the phrase “holy cow” does not come from nowhere) and it should be wholly apparent the destination of this train. Once you start demanding respect for crackers there really is no turning back, I think.

  17. DA says:

    A communion wafer isn’t a headstone. The latter is, after all, private property.

    I think Megan’s headstone example is a good example — it is private property, but the example can simply be modified accordingly. I don’t know who a headstone in a cemetery belongs to; let’s say it belongs to the family of the deceased. Megan’s question could be rephrased, “Would it be okay if a member of your family spraypainted obscenities on your mother’s grave?” But this is cumbersome, and Megan’s formulation which ignores the private-property issue is equally instructive.

    Of course the death threats should be condemned (and investigated, prosecuted etc… as the case may be). In the end, though, I think the main takeaway point from all this is that PZ Myers has made clear that he is a jerk; it’s hard to see what he thinks he is accomplishing for the worthy cause of science education by acting this way.

  18. Dutchgirl says:

    I hold no symbol sacred, religious or secular, and I should not be expected to in a free country. I agree with Meyers that its just a cracker. The genesis of this whole cracker-gate was Meyers responding to the idea that taking a host is a hate-crime, an idea he said he would test if he was sent some holy crackers. Although I think he plans to go through with it (including a Koran), the initial comment was sarcastic. That said, I think there is no high road on this one.

  19. William d'Inger says:

    I think the fast food chains in NYC ought to sue the city for failure to provide equal protection under the law. If they have to put calorie and nutritional information on their products, then it ought to be printed on the wafers too.

  20. Johnny Doe says:

    Another thing. The American flag represents the gold standard in modernity; ideals which, at their core, would make instantly improve any Iran or North Korea an order of magnitude. One cannot say the same of a sacred piece of bread, which at best represents an archaic notion of cannibalism. One cannot say, for example, that the ideals of Catholicism would instantly improve any country. Don’t believe me? Ask AIDS-ridden Africa.

    Yes, the knee-jerk effect of desecrating a cherished symbol is palpable, but let’s look at the core of what the symbol actuals means before we step over ourselves in its defense. Just saying.

  21. Bithead says:

    They’re not just “things”,

    Flag burning.

    Your point about represntations is quite correct,Michael. But it does get a little deeper than that, here. I will suggest you google the word “Transubstantiation”.

  22. Michael says:

    Flag burning.

    I feel the same way about flag burning too. Now I feel I should clarify, all of these actions should be legal and protected by the first amendment, while at the same time I feel that they shouldn’t be done.

    But it does get a little deeper than that, here. I will suggest you google the word “Transubstantiation”.

    Yeah, I have a hard time factoring superstition into my moral code. If I don’t believe it’s the body of Christ, then my ethics will not be based on it. To me, the only thing real here is how Catholics feel about the Eucharist, not the Eucharist itself, and so that is all I can base my choices on.

  23. Floyd says:

    Substitute your keyboard for “a colored crayon”
    and if the shoe fits…..

    http://www.wbr.com/paulsimon/lyrics/poem_underground_wall.html

  24. Bithead says:

    Yeah, I have a hard time factoring superstition into my moral code.

    Go crack a dictionary, and yo’ll find that supertition and religion are two different things.

    If I don’t believe it’s the body of Christ, then my ethics will not be based on it.

    So, then we’re not to repect the beliefs of others, after all?

  25. Michael says:

    Go crack a dictionary, and yo’ll find that supertition and religion are two different things.

    I won’t argue that. I have a problem with superstition, not religion. As I noted, a person’s religion is a factor in whether I view an action is right or wrong, but not their superstition. Misusing a communion cracker is morally wrong, to me, because of the religion of Catholics, not because of the superstition.

    So, then we’re not to repect the beliefs of others, after all?

    There’s a difference between respecting someone’s belief, and sharing someone’s belief. Again going back to the cracker, I don’t believe it was the body of Christ, so I don’t feel it was morally wrong because of that. On the other hand, I respect the beliefs of those who do think it was the body of Christ, and I feel it was morally wrong because of that.

  26. Bithead says:

    I won’t argue that. I have a problem with superstition, not religion. As I noted, a person’s religion is a factor in whether I view an action is right or wrong, but not their superstition. Misusing a communion cracker is morally wrong, to me, because of the religion of Catholics, not because of the superstition.

    the line you draw here seems abit fuzzy.

    There’s a difference between respecting someone’s belief, and sharing someone’s belief. Again going back to the cracker, I don’t believe it was the body of Christ, so I don’t feel it was morally wrong because of that. On the other hand, I respect the beliefs of those who do think it was the body of Christ, and I feel it was morally wrong because of that.

    And by those lights, then, you’ve justified his action, since he views the destruction of all religion a moral impartive. Follow?

    What you need to understand is that since morality invariably relates to how we interact with each other, there is no such animal as individual morality. It’s a group effort, a group definition. Where the individual gets into that act is when they decide to be or not to be a part of one group or another.

    But that still leaves us with the question of what he did being or not being a hate crime. What say you?

  27. Grewgills says:

    Go crack a dictionary, and yo’ll find that supertition and religion are two different things.

    superstition
    1 a: a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation b: an irrational abject attitude of mind toward the supernatural, nature, or God resulting from superstition
    2: a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary
    religion
    (1): the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

    Arguably there is considerable overlap. Certainly religions are chock full of superstitions. The tortured logic of completely imperceptible underlying substance as opposed to perceptible accidents that is used to explain transubstantiation while the cracker remains to all human and mechanical perception a cracker certainly fits.

  28. Michael says:

    the line you draw here seems abit fuzzy.

    Let me try to clarify it then. I base my morality on what I believe is factual. That someone believes in the Eucharist is factual. The accuracy of that belief is not factual. Therefore my morality is based on the existance of the belief, not on the accuracy of the belief.

    And by those lights, then, you’ve justified his action, since he views the destruction of all religion a moral impartive. Follow?

    No, I don’t follow. He seems to follow the first part (morality not based on accuracy of a belief), without following the second part (morality based on the existance of a belief).

    But that still leaves us with the question of what he did being or not being a hate crime. What say you?

    I think the “hate crime” line is much fuzzier than the line I was drawing. However I don’t see there being a “crime” committed here, at least not in the legal sense, so I wouldn’t classify this as a hate crime. Hateful? Maybe, but not criminal.

  29. Bithead says:

    No, I don’t follow. He seems to follow the first part (morality not based on accuracy of a belief), without following the second part (morality based on the existance of a belief).

    If he believes that the destruction of all religion is a moral imperative, then by his lights that moral imperative that leaves him of the responsibility inherent in a society. An extreme example would be the 9/11 terrorists. by your lights and mine and what they did was an immoral act. then he on the other hand, consider themselves above all that, since they see themselves as fighting against what they see as a larger immorality.

    and yes, I’m quite aware of the comparison that I’m laying out here; let me lay this out more plainly. I see very little difference between him acting on his independent morality and the 9/11 hijackers operating on theirs.

    I think the “hate crime” line is much fuzzier than the line I was drawing. However I don’t see there being a “crime” committed here, at least not in the legal sense, so I wouldn’t classify this as a hate crime. Hateful? Maybe, but not criminal

    Then, I think you underestimate the depths of how problematic hate crime laws are. I would suggest to you that it’s possible indeed likely that his actions were driven by hatred. At the very least his actions could be considered socially unacceptable, at the least a disturbing the peace charge. Could that be extended into a hate crime? I daresay it could… and likely would were some other religion outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream been involved.

    Think on that for a moment; What would western governments, including the US to say about the destruction of religious artifacts involving any other religion? What would be said about such public intent to cause an angry response, against any other religion? I think we both know they’d have the hate crime laws out before the echo died. Particularly where Islam is involved just now. Didn’t we have a soldier up on charges for flushing a Koran? Think Flushing a bible would draw anything louder than a mild reprimand and a few mild guffaws?

    Ask Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn about how western governments treat such actions against non-western religions.

  30. Johnny Doe says:

    I see very little difference between him acting on his independent morality and the 9/11 hijackers operating on theirs.

    Myers’ yet-to-be-performed action will (presumably) lead to the destruction of half-cent waffer–surrendered by its original owner–that was going to be destroyed in any case, the actions of the 9/11 hijackers directly lead to the death of thousands that would have otherwise lived. Try again.

  31. Grewgills says:

    If he believes that the destruction of all religion is a moral imperative, then by his lights that moral imperative that leaves him of the responsibility inherent in a society.

    NO. They (PZ, Dawkins, et al) believe that religion is a destructive force in society and would like to see all religions go the way of Odin or Zeus worship. They do not believe themselves above the law or rationally derived ethics.

    I see very little difference between him acting on his independent morality and the 9/11 hijackers operating on theirs.

    That is the most astoundingly stupid comparison I think I have ever seen.

    A crime must be committed in order for there to be a hate crime. There was no crime and there was no damage to real property.

    What would be said about such public intent to cause an angry response, against any other religion?

    It is done daily. The Danish Muhammed cartoon is one of the most visible examples. If I recall you were in full throated support of that attempt to cause an angry response by Muslims. Now that Christianity is on the receiving end your tune has changed. Why is that?

    Both acts were in poor taste, but are not and should not be illegal.

  32. Bithead says:

    NO. They (PZ, Dawkins, et al) believe that religion is a destructive force in society and would like to see all religions go the way of Odin or Zeus worship. They do not believe themselves above the law or rationally derived ethics.

    Of course THEY get to make such chocies, and if those ethics fall outside that judgment of theirs, anything goes in their defeat, right?

    As I said.

    A crime must be committed in order for there to be a hate crime.

    So, flushing a Koran isn’t a crime, let alone a hate crime? Better tell the soldiers who were so charged. I’m sure you’ll be able to get them exonerated quickly since you understand the topic so very well.

    It is done daily. The Danish Muhammed cartoon is one of the most visible examples. If I recall you were in full throated support of that attempt to cause an angry response by Muslims.

    What you fail to understand is that I put no stock in hate crimes legislation. I’m simply holding those who support such to their own standards, even to the point of using the leftist arguments against western religions. Your responses demonstrates clearly it is the left who cannot withstand it’s own illogic turned against it.

  33. Michael says:

    So, flushing a Koran isn’t a crime, let alone a hate crime? Better tell the soldiers who were so charged.

    I must have missed something, we have a soldier charged in the USA with a crime, for flushing a Koran?

  34. Grewgills says:

    Of course THEY get to make such chocies, and if those ethics fall outside that judgment of theirs, anything goes in their defeat, right?

    We all make such choices every day. The basis of their decisions is rational argument others base their decisions on religion. In my view rational argument is superior to religion in forming ethical standards. You apparently disagree.

    I’m simply holding those who support such to their own standards

    Your stock defense against the pointing out of your own inconsistent standards.

    As Michael correctly pointed out no one has been accused of hate crimes for flushing or otherwise damaging a legally obtained Koran. It is probably an improper interrogation technique, but not a hate crime.

    Your responses demonstrates clearly it is the left who cannot withstand it’s own illogic turned against it.

    How so?